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Bradley University’s nationally recognized Sports Communication program hits a home run with faculty, students and university partners.

Anyone can recognize the need for qualified communication professionals in the sports industry—but not everyone responds with a plan of action. Through the establishment of the Sports Communication program, professors in the Department of Communication at Bradley University have gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that interested students are educated in every aspect of the field. The only one of its kind in the country, this comprehensive undergraduate degree program bestows upon Bradley an aura of national distinction.

Dr. Paul Gullifor, department chair, and Dr. Ron Koperski, associate professor, conceived of the program, which was initiated in 2009. “I think its configuration is unique,” says Dr. Gullifor, author of The Fighting Irish On the Air: The History of Notre Dame Football Broadcasting, published in 2001. “Some sports programs only offer sports marketing or sports management. We cover a wide range and focus on the conceptual side and the industry side, so the program is a better service for
our students.”

The program is unique in part because it covers some fairly nontraditional territory. “We want to use sports as a lens through which we view our culture and other cultures,” says Dr. Gullifor. “We ask students to consider things like the intersection between sports and politics. For example, why do we sing the National Anthem before a game, but not before a theatrical performance? We look at the intersection between sports and gender. We look at the conceptual understanding of sports as a vehicle of communication.”

“When we conceived this program, we were careful about giving it a strong academic foundation,” adds Dr. Koperski. “We painstakingly developed five distinctly brand new courses to make certain we covered every area of the field.” These new courses include “Sports Media in Society” for freshmen; two sophomore-level courses entitled “Sports Writing and Announcing” and “International Issues and Ethics in Sports;” a junior-level course in “Digital Journalism;” and the senior-level capstone class, “Sports Promotion and Publicity.”

In the last semester, the program had 76 students, and its breadth benefits their job searches, says Angela Pratt, ABD, assistant professor of communications. “We make our students the most marketable for all of the jobs that are out there.” Bradley’s first batch of sports communication majors just graduated in May, well positioned for careers in sports publicity, promotion, marketing, journalism, writing, reporting, multimedia, sports announcing and production, play-by-play, camera work, and storytelling.

Building Up
Bradley’s Sports Communication program gives the university a great opportunity to build on its long history of headline-making alumni in the sports industry, with famous names like Jack Brickhouse, Hall of Fame announcer for the Chicago Cubs. “Our alumni are practitioners in the sports communication field,” says Dr. Koperski. “We have Charley Steiner, a current play-by play announcer for the Los Angeles Dodgers; Jim Kelch, a radio play-by-play announcer for the Cincinnati Reds; and Matt Black who works in advertising and promotions with the Chicago Bears,” just to name a few.

Steiner, Class of ’71, has been involved with radio play-by-play for the Dodgers for five seasons. He got his start at the radio station on campus, broadcasting Bradley basketball and baseball games before moving on to WIRL radio in Peoria. After winning a few Emmys with ESPN, he went on to broadcast New York Yankees games on the radio for three years prior to beginning his career in L.A.

Agents for Change
Bradley alumna Katrina Hancock, initially a basketball player and chemistry major, decided to change her emphasis to sports communications in her senior year. Following her dream, Hancock is now a sports anchor in Michigan, demonstrating that there are real opportunities for women in sports.

Pratt hopes the program will have a hand in balancing the ratio of men and women in the field. Bradley’s Sports Communication program currently has a ratio of 7:1. “I feel like I have a role in just showing up everyday,” she says, adding that she is “totally shocked” at Bradley’s gender ratio because “there are lots of women in the sports communication field.”

Pratt believes the program can be used to bring more women alumni from the communication field onto campus. “We need to reflect the industry we’re sending these students into. We need to be more gender-diverse, racially diverse and ethnically diverse. I’m excited to be an agent for change in this area because it’s a change that really needs to happen.”

Firsthand Experience
Extensive practicum opportunities coupled with dynamic internships and expedition trips augment traditional classroom instruction and boost the program’s prestige. Bradley maintains relationships with major professional and collegiate sports organizations, international marketing agencies and media companies. “Expedition classes” led by Dr. Koperski provide students with hands-on experience as they travel and meet with sports executives at various locations over a two-week period. These classes are designed to equip students with “real-world” experience in three areas: the Sports Industry Seminar during the May mini-term in Chicago and Los Angeles; the Corporate and Agency Seminar in alternate years during the May mini-term in Chicago; and the Entertainment Industry Seminar during the January mini-term in L.A. and Hollywood.

This May, a group of juniors and seniors visited Chicago to meet with industry executives. They received exposure to a variety of areas, including operations, sports writing, public relations, announcing, sales, social media and marketing. Numerous professionals in the sports arena spoke to the students about their career paths, job responsibilities and the structures of their respective organizations. 

“Last year, we traveled to Los Angeles in May for two weeks,” says Dr. Koperski, adding that Bradley maintains partnerships with the L.A. Lakers, the Dodgers and the Kings, as well as the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. “These expedition courses have had a successful long run.”

Partnering Professionally
Bradley’s longtime history in intercollegiate sports enables students to engage in these unique opportunities. The university’s professional partners, including network and cable sports broadcasters and celebrity journalists and analysts, allow students to receive training to hold management positions in sports media, including radio and television.
“We partner with the Chicago Bears,” says Dr. Koperski. “One student will do an internship with the Chicago Bandits this summer. Last year, one of our students participated in a semester-long internship with the NCAA Men’s College World Series baseball tournament.”

Bradley also partners with Starcom Worldwide, a media firm in downtown Chicago, and Comcast SportsNet, also in Chicago. Other partners include the St. Louis Cardinals, ESPN Radio in Chicago, the Peoria Rivermen, WGN Radio and the Peoria Chiefs.  

“We had a student try out for a position as a public address announcer at Wrigley Field,” says Dr. Gullifor, noting that more than 300 individuals applied for the position.

“Part of our goal with this program is getting students past ‘I want to be behind the sports desk at ESPN,’” says Pratt. “We want students to take a more comprehensive look at what’s out there and realize there are no limitations to what they can do.”

Looking to London
Given the significant progress the sports communication program has made, Dr. Gullifor says it’s hard to believe the initiative is only two years old. “It’s grown by leaps and bounds!” he exclaims. “We’re fortunate that the administration has been supportive from the very beginning.”

Indeed, the program has garnered a number of accomplishments in its short tenure, but far and away, the biggest milestone is the opportunity for students to intern for NBC at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, where they will fulfill a kaleidoscope of duties working either in London or “behind the scenes” in New York over a three- to five-week span in July and August. Students will earn college credit for filling positions such as “runners,” “loggers” and production associates that require skills in editing and writing.

Bradley landed the impressive accomplishment after more than a year of emails and phone calls from Gullifor to NBC. He jumpstarted the opportunity upon taking a group of students to the network as part of an expedition class to New York City last May. Another piece fell into place when faculty member Dave Kindred, formerly a sportswriter with The Washington Post, put in a good word for Bradley to the NBC Sports chairman.

The uniqueness of Bradley’s Sports Communication program, in conjunction with the one-of-a-kind impression students made on NBC executives in New York, convinced execs to add Bradley to its A-list of just a handful of partner universities nationwide. Bradley students will compete with more than 100 communication majors at select universities across the country for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with world-renowned broadcasters and athletes.

Seventy-three Bradley students sent resumes to NBC, crafted with the help of the faculty in the Slane College of Communications and Fine Arts and the Smith Career Center. Forty students made the cut. NBC representatives interviewed the remaining students on the Bradley campus in late April.

“Just to have this opportunity is exciting for faculty as well as students,” says Pratt. “Our students have given a terrific effort. Being recognized by NBC says a lot about what Bradley has to offer.”

Reasons to Smile
And the university is just getting started. Pratt says the faculty has objectives to grow the program, recruit additional professors and students, and create more internship opportunities. But for now, Bradley has plenty of reasons to smile.

“We saw a chance to do something new with our chairman, the dean and President Glasser, and we took it,” says Pratt. “Bradley’s all about climbing to new heights.”

“It’s great to see everyone coming together for a common cause,” adds Dr. Gullifor. “As far as Bradley’s potential, I think we’re just scratching the surface.” iBi

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